Saturday, 11 August 2018

Oil Babies - Theatre Review

What: Oil Babies
When: 8 - 18 August 2018
Where: Northcote Town Hall
Written and directed by: Petra Kalive
Performed by: Kali Hulme, Jodie Le Vesconte, and Fiona Macleod
Set by: Andrew Bailey
Costumes by: Harriet Oxley
Lighting by: Lisa Mibus
Sound by: Darius Kedros
Fiona Macleod and Jodie Le Vesconte - photo by Lachlan Woods
If you want to see a show which will make you think and feel in spades head down to Northcote Town Hall for Oil Babies. A new work written and directed by Petra Kalive and produced by Lab Kelpie, Oil Babies brings together all of our existential angst about extinction theories, continuation of the species, and the biological clock ticking away in womens' DNA within a lyrical dystopia of love, confusion and despair.

Having unexpectedly fallen pregnant herself, Kalive began to ponder and reassess what it would mean for her and the planet to bring another child into the world. In the script (which you can buy at the box office) P (Hulme) talks about 'Adding more little consumers to the planet.' Meanwhile X (Le Vesconte) and C (Macleod) plan their future - a vision which has unexpectedly changed from a picture of 2 to a picture of 3.

Essentially, Oil Babies is a post-truth study of pressure. Starting with the Dinosaur extinction theory, Kalive debunks the myths about what happened when the meteor hit the earth and reveals what really happened. Millions of tiny shards of flaming glass gas falling down on the earth - 'A furnace of glass rain'. How is glass created? Under great pressure.

How do we know this is what happened? Because if we dig down in the layers of the earth there is 'This one grey line. It represents the day that asteroid hit.' The pressure of layers and layers of empty dirt pushing down on that line is a testament to it's suddeness - 'Within an hour or two.' If the dinosaurs had looked up at the stars they would have see it coming.

At this point the play transitions to contemporary times. P and C are in a loving, lesbian relationship and lie looking up at the stars and quoting Oscar Wilde. Suddenly C drops a bomb - she wants to have a baby. This had never been included in their partner plan and the play wrestles with coming to terms with the idea as individuals, a couple, and as part of a species which has created it's own extinction event through the development of plastics. The pressures of being a woman, keeping fit, saving the planet, and reproducing all bear down.

This is where the title settles in. Plastics are created through polymerisation, or the extreme heating of monomer molecules to create groupings - much like the act of heat and pressure on gas to create glass or diamonds. One of the fun dramaturgies in the work is one type of polymer is a trimer, which is a set of three monomers combining, and recombining. These trimers can also cycle and re-cycle to form tetramers (4) and so on. It is no coincidence the cast of three use spin bikes in the telling of this story - as well, of course, as the illusion to the human race and going nowhere. Also, PCX is the acronym for a type of phenolic polymer plastic sheet created under high pressure.

Kalive's hypothesis about the meteor not causing the original extinction event is the conceit upon which the hypothesis of plastics lies in the show, and it's contribution to the extinction of the human race through the uncontrolled prevalence of microplastics. It was not the creation of plastic which has caused the problem - it is the unexpected side effects, detritus, and environmental inter-connectedness which is the problem. Yes you need plastics for your computer's motherboard, but the e-waste ends up in the water and the fish consume the microplastics instead of food and they die off, or produce food up the predator/prey ladder which is lacking in nutrition, etc.

And just like what happened with the dinosaurs, once the exstinction event is initiated, it cannot be reversed. In this regard the play is quite bleak. Riding on their spin bikes in the gym, P and X and C talk about their efforts to recycle but find themselves constantly returning to a state of despair, crying out 'What more can I do?'

Oil Babies is created for women to perform and it is a play where gender is central to the meaning and intention of this work, as well as integral to its phenomenal impact. Juxtaposing artificial insemination with extinction with parthenogenesis is genius. We watch biological clocks ticking down in competition with the extinction clock - both applying opposing forces of pressure.

Kalive asks questions about a mother's aspirations for her child contiguous with an overwhelming understanding that we are destroying ourselves so there is no future, just like the dinosaurs. Do you want to bring a child into that? Do you want to add another human to the virus contributing to that very same catastrophe?

As well as being a play with an amazing array of intelligent and heart wrenching questions and interogations, Oil Babies is a really beautiful and lyrical play. Taking a minimalist post-dramatic approach Macleod, Le Vesconte and Hulme twine, intertwine and untwine continually in this trimer of physics, history and humanity.

The relationship between Macleod and Le Vesconte is tender and tortured as they struggle to understand what is happening between them. Hulme on the other hand, has a kind of Everyman role. Perhaps my one disappointment was the character of P is not directorially integrated well. There are times Hulme is just kind of pushed out of the scene, sitting with her back to the audience or having  to leave the stage.

To help us wend our way through the maze of ideas and emotional dynamics Kedros has created a fabulously layered soundscape which carries all the nuances of the written text. Add to that the phenomenally evocative lighting by Mibus and in Oil Babies you have a play which is a transitioning portrait as well as a social interogation. The bleakness and beauty of the frame reflects the bleakness and the beauty of the performances. Bailey's set design creates a textured architecture for Mibus to work with - a landscape which is timeless yet spreads on into infinity.

For me, Oil Babies is the hit show this winter. Intelligent, gentle, horrific, terrifying, and a work of great love and humanity.

4.5 Stars

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